Stage Is Set to Sell Theater


For anyone with dreams of being a star--and with $975,000 to spend--the spotlight at a Port Hueneme performing arts center is waiting.

After six years of trying to resurrect its cash-strapped theater, the city of Port Hueneme has put the Dorill B. Wright Cultural Arts Center up for sale. The facility, built in 1984 for $2 million, has been mostly dormant since 1993, when a city budget crisis forced its shutdown.

In the month that the property has been on the market, three church groups and a theater group have toured the center, broker David Gladstone said.

"It's a gorgeous building that is fully equipped for theatrical and convention types of meetings or performances," Gladstone said. "So from that end it's just about a turn-key operation."

Video production companies, recording studios and banquet organizers might also be interested in the facility, he said.

Word that the Wright center was for sale came as a surprise Friday to the city's former mayor, whose name is on the building.

"It's now up for sale?" Dorill Wright asked. "I knew it was on the market for rent. I did not know it was up for sale."

Though the city is still open to leasing the center, past efforts at long-term leasing have failed. Groups have rented the space for only onetime uses.

"Preferences are for a lease," said Greg Brown, Port Hueneme's community development director. "But bring your offers."

Wright said he was saddened by the prospect that the building might be sold, possibly for use as something other than a theater.

"The cultural center offered a venue like no other in Ventura County," he said.

For a city of just 22,600 people, Port Hueneme's cultural center is impressive.

With top-notch acoustics and only 564 seats, the auditorium offered an intimate setting geared toward performers who could not fill the county's larger venues, such as the 1,600-seat Oxnard Performing Arts Center. Its view of the ocean also makes it a picturesque location for a theater.

"All of the performers who came here felt that its location was superb," Wright said, recalling, in particular, big bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

But the Wright center's small size and location also contributed to its problems.

The theater's audience was not large enough to cover its $250,000 annual operating costs, so it relied on a $150,000 city subsidy. And the oceanfront location proved to be too far from the Ventura Freeway to attract many patrons from outside the Port Hueneme-Oxnard area, broker Gladstone said.

"If people are going to travel 20 to 25 minutes [from the freeway], they're probably going to go to Santa Barbara or Thousand Oaks and jump off the freeway right there," Gladstone said.

"It was amazing to me over the years . . . how many people in Ventura County didn't know [the center] existed," Wright said. "There was not the ability of the citizens of Port Hueneme to support it alone. There had to be a broader base of support than that."

When state cutbacks forced Port Hueneme to slash $1 million from its budget in 1993, funding for the cultural center was among the first to go. Wright and others formed a nonprofit group to raise the needed money through private donations, but their efforts brought in only about $12,000, he said. The nonprofit group is now dissolving.

"None of the cultural arts facilities [in Ventura County] are self-supporting. They must have a rich uncle somewhere," Wright said. "We could not develop that relationship in the private sector and when the city lost funding, there went the ability to keep it open."

If Port Hueneme sells its cultural center, the 78-year-old Wright's name will almost certainly disappear from it.

But Brown said a lease would allow the city to maintain control over the building and preserve the 24-year councilman's name.

"I have enjoyed the honor of having my name there," Wright said. "But if it's not economically possible, that's what fate has dealt."

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